Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Opening Pages of Your Novel: Part Two

Continuing on from Part One: The Opening Pages of Your Novel: Part One

On the first page you are setting out your stall. This is the magical world of my story: this setting and these people are what my story is all about. To return to the literary agent I mentioned in part one, Luigi Bonomi, 'the first page must pull them in - be indicative of the whole story.'

You may ask, how can I get my whole story into the opening paragraphs and pages of my novel? Not all stories are that simple. Or are they?

Theme is a kind of cohesive gel which brings together all the elements in your story. So if you can convey theme in your first few lines, you're onto a winner. Films often do this, using particular images or image-montages at the start of a film to suggest, either boldly or subliminally, the coming story and its overarching theme. And we live in a visual-rich age.

Readers also respond well to images and imagery, so don't be afraid to use them throughout your story, but perhaps most carefully in your opening pages, to suggest or underline theme, and thereby the entire story. Often this image will come naturally, without a writer even needing to think about it.

But if you're stuck, look at films you've enjoyed, or the openings of novels you recall very strongly. What images exist there? What clues about the coming story were you given in those first few vital moments?

Now consider your own story, and its general themes.

What kind of opening image - a place or an object - might subtly imply a theme of betrayal, for instance? Or a coming-of-age story? Or a love story?

Films can teach us plenty about the impact of an opening image. The key opening scene of the romantic comedy FRENCH KISS shows us the heroine in a flight simulation cabin, trying to cope with her fear of flying, as she is hoping to travel soon. Not only does this image - Kate on a plane - recur several times in the film, showing each time how she is developing as a person, but it also serves as a metaphor for her story.

At the beginning of the film Kate is trapped, 'grounded' in a failed relationship. By the end of the film, she is no longer afraid to accept the shortcomings of her old relationship: her new-found willingness to change has liberated her, and she can spread her wings and fly. The theme of being blind to true love is also emphasised by repeated comic instances of Kate just failing to spot the Eiffel Tower.

Think of your favourite novels. Which visual metaphors can you recall? Do they point to theme or shape a contrast? The opening scene of Margaret Mitchell's epic novel GONE WITH THE WIND introduces us to Scarlett O'Hara on the porch at Tara, her father's plantation. She is in her element, in her prime, queen of all she surveys, and we are shown her youthful arrogance in the first few pages so that we can later draw comparisons between our first glimpse of this fiesty southern belle, the hardships she is soon to face, and the woman she will eventually become. Interestingly, the opening scene of GONE WITH THE WIND takes place in the 'late afternoon' with these young 'aristocrats' of the south squinting into the sun: they are too blinded by their wealth and soft living to see that their world is coming to an end.

Be careful with the visual metaphors you choose though. Readers are cynical and sophisticated. They know when they're being suckered in. Try to make your imagery organic; let it spring naturally from the world of the story and its characters. If you know your story closely enough, such visual clues should come effortlessly. Many writers know instinctively whether to set their opening scene at twilight or high noon or in the dead of night, depending on the world of their story - and where it is headed.

Lastly, I'd like to go back to what I was saying about narrative voice and structure. Everything has structure. Even sound has structure. And your opening scene is no different. The accepted wisdom of scene structure is the same as for parties: if you want to make an impression, arrive late, leave early. But while incredibly useful when considering where to start and end, that dictum does not help people who need to learn how to shape a scene effectively.

You need to decide from the outset, though this will also happen naturally, what kind of scene shaper you are. Then work to your strengths, which is another way of saying avoid your weaknesses. If you've been told your scenes lack cohesion or purpose, don't shrug and consider yourself a creative artist, be professional and shape them more tightly.

"If they were caught, Eloise thought, the penalty would be death." The opening of my novel WOLF BRIDE.

Each scene should have a vital reason to exist, a reason which pushes the story forward, preferably without which your story cannot stand, and this applies in particular to your opening scene. It may be the only example of your ability to structure a scene that an agent reads. Although it's important to get everything else working for you - sentence structure, word selection, tone, dialogue, character, imagery - if you cannot shape the opening scene in a workmanlike fashion, you will lack the page-turning quality so prized by agents - and readers!

One way to tackle shaping your opening scene is to think of it in the same terms as the imagery I mentioned above: the opening scene may be a catalyst for the action ahead; it may suggest or encapsulate theme; it may underline character, or explain how a character became that way; it should set up or indicate the action of the story, and introduce either one or more of the main characters or the situation in which they will shortly find themselves.

The page-turning quality!
Unless it's a prologue written in a different style, your opening scene should also be in tune with the narrative voice of the book, so the reader knows what kind of voice will be whispering in their ear - and whether they can trust it.

In addition, the opening scene should have a clear beginning, middle and end. Which means in real terms a set-up, a conflict, and a resolution of sorts. And if that structure subtly mirrors the main action of the plot, so much the better.

If an opening scene can do most of the above, and not be impossibly cluttered or heavy-handed, and you have also used your understanding of narrative voice and character to make the reader care what happens next, then you will have done a fine job.

Elizabeth Moss's latest novel is WOLF BRIDE (Hodder & Stoughton): published 29 August 2013, available NOW in both the US and the UK, and other countries, in ebook form.


  1. Wonderful advice, Elizabeth. I often find that my 'themes' aren't quite worked out in the opening scenes, and, when I finish the book, I can go back and work things into the beginning, based on what I later find out about my characters or the theme of the book. Ow. I hope you're going to do a piece on avoiding run-on sentences later in the series....

  2. How could I do such a thing though, Jane, when I just adore run-on sentences, especially if they also gallop uncontrollably towards the end, and often indulge in them myself, despite knowing better and having reasonable control over my punctuation?

    Draws breath ...

    Thanks for leaving a COMMENT. You have now joined a very tiny and select band of people. Those who have read and actually left comments on my blog. Sigh. E. x

  3. Thanks, Elizabeth - two really inspiring posts. It's so true that often in the first draft we are telling ourselves the story, and it isn't until a cool read through that we see the themes (or the story you didn't know you were writing).

  4. Great advice. I'm helping a friend shaping up his opening and this came in very handy!

  5. Thanks for your comments! I'm so glad it's been useful. E.